On an April afternoon in 1996, a man walked calmly into the Broad Arrow Café carrying a sports bag. He ordered a meal and sat on the deck overlooking Mason Cove; the ruins of the harsh, colonial era penitentiary opposite, reflected in the water. Nearby patrons observed the man talking to himself and appearing increasingly anxious. None of them would have imagined that the man had just murdered the owners of a nearby bed and breakfast, nor could predict the abhorrent crime he was about to perpetrate in Port Arthur, a quiet settlement on the Tasman Peninsula.
He went back inside the café; gun fire soon echoed across the historic site. Concealed inside his sports bag had been a Colt AR15. A semi-automatic assault rifle, it was at the time a legal weapon in parts of Australia, including Tasmania, where firearms regulation was particularly relaxed. Lightweight, accurate and referred to with derision in hunting circles as a ‘spray and pray’ weapon; it took less than half a minute for 12 lives to be taken and a further ten people to be injured.
35 people would lose their lives that day, 21 more would be injured. A crime on an unprecedented scale in this country, it remains Australia’s worst mass killing. It ranks among the worst such events in modern times worldwide, and came only weeks after the chilling school shooting in Dunblane, Scotland, that saw 16 children and a teacher murdered.
Oceans apart yet united in grief, two countries were confronting the reality of gun violence. In Britain, gun laws introduced in the aftermath of a previous massacre in 1987, which included a ban on semi-automatic weapons, were strengthened. A general ban on ownership of handguns was introduced, and an amnesty offered for firearms and ammunition to be handed in to authorities.
Australia followed a similar path, with the Commonwealth compelling the states to join a National Agreement strictly regulating licences and restricting what weapons were permissible. Semi-automatic weapons like the AR15 were, with few exceptions, banned, and a national amnesty and buy-back implemented.
Though in both countries, these measures enjoyed majority support, the new laws were not without controversy. In Britain, sporting shooters felt discriminated against, while in Australia, the new laws were seen as part of a broader conflict pitting urbanites against those in rural areas.
None the less, the overwhelming feeling in communities remained that there was no need for such weapons to be in the hands of the general public.
The same hasn’t been true for the United States, whose deeply ingrained gun culture has formed a backdrop to so many shooting massacres over the past three decades. In the most recent, a lone gun man armed with a Bushmaster version of the AR15 rifle used at Port Arthur, murdered 26 people at an Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. 20 of the victims were children, aged just 6 and 7.
As with Dunblane and Port Arthur, the scale and context of the Newtown shooting has become a watershed moment, offering perhaps the best chance in years for meaningful progress on firearm regulation in the United States. States like California in recent years have made progress, but only at a federal level can more substantive change be achieved.
In 1994, the US Congress approved the Federal Assault Weapons Ban, a series of provisions within the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, outlawing the manufacture of certain weapons for the civilian market. In addition to setting general criteria for what weapons should be prohibited, the law identified several specific models, including the Colt AR15. A sunset clause however lifted the ban automatically in 2004 and the Congress chose not to extend the law. To date, proposals to reintroduce the ban have failed, and potent weapons like the AR15 can be purchased from one’s local Walmart.
While in Britain and Australia, the public responded to shootings by dismissing the need for such weapons, in the United States, opinion is more divided. Indeed gun sales spiked in the shadow of the Sandy Hook massacre, as they have done after previous mass shootings. Following the 2011 shooting in Tuscon, Arizona, of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and 18 bystanders, sales of the Glock 19 pistol used in the shooting significantly rose.
On the website of one major gun retailer days after 20 children lost their lives in Newtown, a message comforted customers, assuring them that despite strong demand and low stock, more guns were on the way.
For the United States, gun control is more than a legal issue, it’s a cultural issue. It’s a nation whose independence was born in the flash of a muzzle. A nation whose right to bear arms in defence of that independence is cemented in the second amendment of the Constitution and whose population fiercely defends that right.
When you need a permit for a handgun but not for military style rifles in some states, it’s clear things need to change. When retailers have Christmas specials on large calibre weapons, and sell out by Christmas, it’s clear that change must be both legal and cultural. But in the US, that change will not come easy and progress cannot be limited to gun control.
It would be wrong to ignore the need for tighter gun control, and the longer term potential it will have, but it would also be wrong to overstate the effects it alone would have. While Britain has seen a significant decline in gun crimes in the past decade, the number rose sharply after stricter laws were introduced following Dunblane. Even with gun ownership among the lowest in the world and favourable trends more recently, a lone gunman was able to take 12 lives in Cumbria in 2010 in a four hour spree. Illicit weapons and those predating the bans remains a significant problem in Britain.
In the US, a market saturated with firearms, the problem is even bigger. Despite the 1994 Assault Weapons Ban, two gunmen in 1999 armed with weapons predating the ban took 15 lives at Columbine High School in Colorado. It is too late to rely on stricter laws to make a difference in the nearer term.
Pragmatically speaking, stricter gun control laws in the US can now only hope to reduce the potential for and scale of mass shooting events as time moves forward.
The solution then must go beyond gun control; focusing not only on the means but on the root cause of such heinous crimes. Progress is needed in addressing the mental health issues, that from Columbine to Newtown, from Dunblane to Port Arthur, have invariably played a pivotal role in such tragedies.
Addressing gun crime goes beyond what the law alone can accomplish. It will take a society’s effort; a society working to cure the ills within in it and working to change the attitudes that permeate it.
This article was specially written for Obiter, a new independent and intercollegiate law journal offering original, engaging and accessible insights.